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LSU 64, Florida 58: Another Gators comeback attempt falls short

Florida’s best chance yet to pull a big pelt from a big game in SEC play goes down like the others: A loss.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There were Tigers and stripes and a jungle again — and for Florida, Wednesday night’s game against LSU following the script of its Saturday night showdown against Auburn had to be exquisitely painful.

Again, Florida absorbed a big run to begin the game by its foe, rallied hard in the first half and harder after halftime, heard a lot of whistles thanks to its aggressiveness, cut a double-digit lead to a single point ... and lost.

And the most important commonality between LSU 64, Florida 58 and Auburn 85, Florida 73 for the Gators is that both go down as Ls that are part of an 0-3 start in SEC play.

This time, Florida’s immediate deficit wasn’t quite as big: LSU opening on a 12-4 run put Florida on its heels, but the Gators were down 16-7 at Auburn in just more than six minutes. The Gators also closed to within three points at 16-13 before the second run by the opposing Tigers this time: LSU would stretch its lead to 30-16, eventually, while the Gators got to 16-11 on the Plains before Auburn built to a 32-22 edge.

The formula for bridging the gap was much the same, too. Florida fed Colin Castleton repeatedly, and while LSU’s constant doubling on his touches helped keep him from having an absurd night — he finished with 19 points and nine rebounds, but never quite took over — it also prompted a staccato symphony of whistles on the Tigers, who would lose Tari Eason and Efton Reid to three fouls each in the first half and foul-outs in the second period.

And Florida hitting threes and clawing for offense while getting stops helped it close to within a point of these Tigers in the second half even after they opened up a 14-point advantage with a nice push out of halftime. Seven blocks and 16 forced turnovers — half steals — were the residue of Florida’s defense tightening its screws after a loose beginning in which LSU did excellent work against the Gators’ press.

Sure, Phlandrous Fleming was called for a technical that seemed to be for chirping his defender after hitting a three to slash that lead to 11 points, and LSU got two points on a late-clock alley-oop that appeared to come off a Tiger’s fingertips after the shot clock had reached zero on replay. But Florida took those blows and kept coming. Surely the Gators couldn’t fail to tie or take the lead despite a furious comeback again, right?

They sure did.

Their first two possessions with chances to tie in the second half resulted in an 0-for-2 trip to the line and a rare Castleton miss; Castleton’s tip-in to make the game a 54-53 affair was followed by a possession ending in a missed three by Myreon Jones, and LSU would score to make it 56-53 shortly after.

Florida’s next two trips? Missed three, then a foul on a three — and a 1-for-3 trip to the line by Jones. And then LSU took the lead back to four, and neve allowed Florida a chance to tie or take the lead again, with freshman point guard Eric Gaines, playing big minutes in the absence of injured Missouri transfer Xavier Pinson, scoring six straight points for LSU to cap a stellar 15-point performance.

Darius Days added 20 for the Tigers, while Fleming had 11 off the bench to make him the lone Gator to join Castleton in double figures.

And if Florida wants to find where it lost this game, it can again look to its slow start — or to its shooting. The Gators made seven of 31 threes and just 11 of 22 free throws, wasting the best opportunities they had to score against the Tigers’ rugged defense and a night on which LSU was assessed 21 fouls to Florida’s mere 10.

The road gets easier from here — it would all but have to, really, with Florida coming off three straight games against teams that are good enough this year that they might consider a trip to the Sweet Sixteen disappointing. (Auburn and LSU, especially, look like Final Four-worthy squads.)

But Florida is now just 3-6 after its thrilling 6-0 start, and needs good wins to counter its horrid loss to Texas Southern in December. LSU playing in Gainesville and without Pinson for all 40 minutes — and without Eason and Reid, who combined for eight points, for most of it — represented Florida’s best chance of scoring a big win over its brutal stretch to open SEC play.

And the Gators didn’t get it done.

So even if the schedule lightens up a bit, what they have to do from here if they want to make noise in March only got harder.